Since birth we have been told over and over again the same four things:
Use your brain.
These fundamentals of becoming more healthful have stood the test of time. Let’s be real. We have to accomplish all of these tasks on a daily basis, so shouldn’t we in fact be experts at these skills? Some days I am crushing it and firing on all cylinders at 100%, while other days I can barely seem to use my brain and feed myself.
On paper this sounds super easy. The real-life execution, however, is a little more challenging. Why? Because very few people like change. The don’t like the word, the idea, or the mere thought of change. Plus, change isn’t always easy.
The theory of change seems simple. Typically, just stop or start doing something. Nevertheless, the intricacies of accomplishing said change present some challenges. The older you get, the more habitual patterns of behavior we form, the “harder” it becomes to rewire the brain. With the latest research in brain plasticity, this is becoming MORE possible.
So how do we improve our behaviors? First and foremost, there has to be a desire to change. This may come in the form of an epiphany, a directive from a doctor, or a strong suggestion from your spouse. The next step is to have a reasonable expectation about the time and energy devoted to this change. Set yourself up for success and recognize that change takes time.
To improve your buy-in and give you a solid scientific leg to stand on, researchers have been hard at work discovering the latest ways to make rewiring our brain easier. Interestingly enough, those same four things your Mom has been nagging at you about are exactly what scientists are proving in real life studies.
1. Watch what you eat. Trade the jumbo size coffee and donut for 48 ounces of water and a banana, and don’t snack all day long. According to a study conducted by Vasconcelos, intermittent fasting has been shown to promote adaptive responses in synapses. BTW, synapses are the spaces between neurons that allow an electrical impulse to move from one nerve cell to another. This is basically how brain cells talk to each other.
2. Get some sleep. Chronic insomnia is associated with atrophy (neuronal death and damage) in the hippocampus, while adequate sleep may enhance neurogenesis. That means your brain is dying a slow death when you don’t sleep, and has some regenerative benefits when you get enough sleep. Small first step to increasing your sleep: Start your bedtime ritual earlier (like seriously at least 1 hour BEFORE you want to sleep).
3. Get to the gym! According to a study conducted by Niemann in recent years, physical activity and good physical fitness can prevent or slow the normal age-related neuronal death and damage to the hippocampus, and even increase the volume of the hippocampus. Regular exercise can slow down the decline of brain functions! What more incentive do you need?
4. As few as 10, 1-hour sessions of cognitive training over five or six weeks have the potential to reverse the same amount of age-related decline that has been observed in the same time period (Ball et al., 2012). This can be as easy as listening to a podcast, watching a YouTube video or even coloring in a coloring book.
No matter how uncomfortable you are with change, take a baby step and your brain will thank you.
(Crystal Reynolds is an owner of 43 Degrees North Athletic Club.)